Minority Populations Urgently Need Education, Vaccination Against Deadly Disease

~ By Maria Kneusel, MSHCE, MSN, RN ~

Imagine entire communities filled with men and women whose lives are at risk from disease, and fewer than half are taking the simple steps available to stop the threat in its tracks. This is precisely what’s happening in minority populations in Colorado where about only four in ten senior citizens are being vaccinated against pneumococcal diseases – a number that is even higher for at-risk people 18 and older.

Throughout Colorado, men and women are needlessly suffering and dying from pneumococcal diseases, including pneumonia, meningitis and septicemia. While it’s conventional wisdom that pneumonia is a condition affecting older people, the fact is that younger Coloradoans with chronic conditions that compromise their immune systems are equally at risk. These conditions include chronic heart disease, pulmonary diseases like asthma, liver disease, and smoking cigarettes.

The fact is that in 2015 there were over 500 cases of pneumococcal pneumonia in the state and over half of the fatalities were among patients under age 60.

Immunization against these diseases is vitally important for all Americans, but we must make a particularly aggressive effort in our Hispanic and African-American communities where immunization rates are lagging well behind national averages.

This simple shot was a life safer for Marcos, a patient we know. At age 70, he arrived at the hospital with abdominal pain that required surgery to remove his gallbladder. Prior to the surgery, a nurse asked him if he had received the pneumonia vaccine. He had not, and the nurse administered it. As it turned out, that vaccine may have saved his life because Marcos suffered surgical complications that, if he had developed pneumonia in addition, would probably have taken his life. He eventually recovered and is home with his family today. Thankfully his recovery was not complicated by a struggle with a pneumococcal infection.

One of the core missions of our organization is to improve the overall health of Hispanic populations in Colorado and throughout the country, helping patients like Marcos take the simple steps that can prevent disease and prolong their lives. Expanding education about not only the dangers of pneumococcal disease but also about the availability, reliability and affordability of vaccines is critical to that mission.

The statistics about pneumococcal vaccination are a cause for deep concern. According to the 2011 National Health Interview Survey from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the national average for vaccination among seniors over 65 is just 64 percent – which means more than one third of this at-risk population is unprotected.

But when we look at African-American and Hispanic populations the numbers are disturbing. Slightly more than half of African-American seniors are vaccinated. That number falls to 45 percent for Hispanics – fully 20 percentage points lower than the average for non-Hispanic whites.

This disparity in vaccination rates is even more troubling to us in the medical profession because we know pneumococcal disease affects minority populations, regardless of age, at a rate significantly higher than in the white community. And minority populations have a higher prevalence of chronic conditions such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and obesity.

Where does this disparity come from?
Studies show several factors, all of which we should work to remedy. First, in the Hispanic community there are obvious language barriers and there is a strong need for Spanish-speaking healthcare professionals to serve these families. This simple act of breaking through a cultural barrier can greatly increase trust and a willingness to get vaccinated.

For others, there can be a lack of awareness about the affordability of pneumococcal vaccines, or the fact that Medicare and Medicaid cover the costs for recipients. There also remains a distrust of medical professionals within minority communities and that expanding access to one-on-one discussions with physicians and nurses can make important inroads for preventive treatment such as vaccination.

It is also important to connect vaccination with screening and treatment for other healthcare issues. More and more centers that are treating minority patients with diabetes or heart disease are also recommending and providing vaccination at the same visit.

The severe risk from pneumococcal disease, which kills thousands of Americans each year, can be eliminated by simple, effective and lasting vaccination. It’s vital that this message reach families across the country, and particularly in the underserved Hispanic and African-American communities that so desperately need the protection that these vaccines provide.

Maria Kneusel, MSHCE, MSN, RN is the president of the Denver Chapter of National Association of Hispanic Nurses™ (NAHN). She is also a member of the faculty at the School of Nursing at Platt College in Aurora.
NAHN is a non-profit professional association committed to the promotion of the professionalism and dedication of Hispanic nurses by providing equal access to educational, professional, and economic opportunities for Hispanic nurses. NAHN is also dedicated to the improvement of the quality of health and nursing care of Hispanic consumers.

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